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Sources: Former FBI director to criticize Ashcroft terror focus at 9/11 hearings

NBC News has learned that a former FBI Director is expected to criticize his former boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft — and Ashcroft's focus on terrorism before 911.

The 9/11 commission picks up again next week with more high drama in store. NBC News has learned that a former FBI director is expected to criticize his former boss, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, along with Ashcroft’s focus on terrorism before 9/11.

In the summer of 2001, career FBI official Tom Pickard became acting director of the FBI.  Because of intelligence intercepts, concern about a terror attack was high.

In July, Pickard went to brief Ashcroft about al-Qaida threats and other FBI matters.

NBC News has learned that Pickard now has told 9/11 commission investigators that Ashcroft was somewhat dismissive of the latest information on al-Qaida.

“It wasn’t something he wanted to hear more about. Ashcroft had other things on his mind,” sources say Pickard told the commission.

Pickard testifies publicly before the 9/11 commission Tuesday and would not comment to NBC.

Ashcroft’s spokesman strongly denies the charge.  “I think that Mr. Pickard’s recollection is just totally off, you know.  Frankly, the attorney general was interested in counterterrorism from the day he took office,” said Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo.

The allegation that Ashcroft was uninterested in terrorism two months before the attack is potentially explosive, because that same month, domestic agencies — including the FBI — were called to the White House and alerted to threats of an impending terror attack.

Other witnesses also have told the commission that Ashcroft didn’t seem interested.

Roger Cressey, now an NBC News analyst, was Dick Clarke’s deputy in the White House counterterrorism office: “After our initial briefing, we saw no further interest by the attorney general or his office in learning more about the al-Qaida presence inside the United States.”

Sources say Pickard also will testify that Ashcroft rejected a proposal by the FBI to increase counterterrorism spending before 9/11.  A May 2001 memo signed by Ashcroft lists seven budget priorities — terrorism is not even mentioned.

Still, Ashcroft insists his terror funding record is solid.  “I mean we put our money where our mouth was.  We were committed to counterterror,” Corallo added.

Though a reluctant witness, Pickard testifies right before Ashcroft Tuesday and is expected to put his former boss on the defensive.

Lisa Myers is NBC’s senior investigative correspondent.